MARUDI: As the DHC-6 Twin Otter’s engines stopped, the pilot announced with great pride: “The journey is only 15 minutes. We are in Marudi.”
Indeed, a first-time female passenger might not have time to get over the shock of being asked her body weight while checking in at Miri Airport before arriving in Marudi.
Twin Otter passengers are weighed before boarding the plane plying between Miri and Marudi daily, to prevent the aircraft from being overloaded.
The rudest shock, in fact, comes from the travelling time of four hours over a 44km-stretch of road in poor conditions – potholes, narrow, sloppy, slippery – as described by BAT7 of their experience.
Marudi, 200km from Miri, is the main transit point into the Baram District – the heartland of northern Sarawak.
“It is a very unique town with at least 26 ethnic groups living harmoniously together,” said Marudi District Council secretary Petrick Linggie Taboh.
Petrick, 49, from Betong, was posted to the council 11 years ago. “Marudi is special because there is no majority race. There is an equal percentage of Chinese, Malays and Dayaks, making up its population of 18,000,” said Petrick, who is loving the life here. For him the challenge would be road connectivity to other towns and Miri.
“But this is compensated with the comparatively lower cost of living, where you can save money,” a contented Petrick said with a big smile.
“The crime rate here is low. The residents here can leave their gates open with no fear.” It was not all peace in the early days, before 1899, with fighting among tribal groups and headhunting widely reported.
Brooke-era British Resident Charles Hose decided to organise a peace conference in the fort that bears his name to restore peace among various tribes.
The conference marked an end to the disputes and headhunting, as well as the first Baram Regatta, a tradition which has continued until today. Over the years, the regatta has transformed into an event that attracts visitors and locals, providing an opportunity to experience the Baram’s authentic rich cultural and historical heritage.
Fort Hose, situated on the banks of the Baram River, has been converted into a museum housing exhibits on ethnography, photographs, handicrafts, and ceremonial items with focus on history and heritage of the local communities such as the Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit and Penan.
Councillor Joseph Tiong said the government has allocated RM3 million to renovate Fort Hose, and another RM7 million to rebuild the riverbank by the side of the fort, which has been eroded over the years.
BAT7 was impressed by a red boat marked ‘Klinik Bergerak’ (mobile clinic), which according to Petrick, is the first and only one in Malaysia.
“The mobile clinic moves along the river from Monday to Thursday, serving people living in longhouses along Baram River,” he said.
It has been in operation for some five years. Further down the town, also by the river, is a Tua Pek Kong temple built in 1891, probably the oldest building in Marudi. A road is named after the Chinese temple as Jalan Tua Pek Kong. Temple committee deputy chairman Jong Kian Foo, 70, told BAT7 that Tua Pek Kong temples in Malaysia are all built by the rivers.
“This is because the sailors pray for protection and safety as they set out to sail out to sea,” Jong explained.
There are worshippers from other professions. The temple committee has submitted a request for an allocation and has received verbal promises from the leaders.
The temple is hoping the government will allocate for its expansion project an abandoned market for fishermen located next to the temple.
The temple depends on donations from worshippers for its maintenance and expenses as well as to fund various charitable activities. It manages an old folks home which has two residents at present.
The wooden house is tucked away in one of the alleys near the Chinese cemetery.
It has a spacious living and kitchen area, while the small bedrooms are fitted with a single bed and a small wardrobe.
BAT7 met resident Huong Hau Tiong, 83, a Marudi local who never married and spent his life as a rubber tapper; as well as Tiong Chuong Hua, 80, also single from Sibu, who stayed back after coming here to work as a cook 44 years ago. The soft-spoken Huong humbly shared that they have no more thoughts nor hope for the life ahead.
“Sometimes, we just walk to the town in the morning and return here after. There is not much to do at this age,” Huong said.
“I have relatives here, so sometimes when I go out late, I don’t come back here,” Tiong added. Even though their days may seem rather lonely, Huong shared that there are many ‘unseen friends’ lingering around.
“I can see them. One time, I was watching TV and I heard people clapping outside. There were four to five dark shadows looking in from the window. They were saying in Foochow that I have a good life here.
“There were even little kids playing inside sometimes,” he recalled, while pulling out a chair to sit on, gesturing while describing his regular encounters with the supernatural.
As we were leaving, the two octogenarians stood in the doorway and waved us goodbye, thankful for our brief visit.
The colours, rich history, heritage, legacy, and friendliness of the residents here; the hopes of the people; and even the seeming hopelessness of the aged have all been etched in the minds of BAT7 members, and are treasured and unforgettable.